Trial 'shows worth of another weapon'
THE over-riding objective of every police operation when faced with a violent or aggressive person is to resolve the situation safely without resorting to force. Only when this is not possible are other tactics, such as firearms considered.
If we look at what is required under the European Convention on Human Rights, it puts forward principles that are absolutely critical to police use of firearms such as legality; there must be clear legal grounds for whatever action is taken by the police, and accountability whereby officers must be accountable for their actions.
There is also the key issue of necessity where officers must only act out of "absolute necessity" and this is why the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (ACPOS) and our colleagues in ACPO England and Wales are engaged in a far-reaching programme designed to find less-lethal alternatives to the conventional firearm.
One part of the process has been a year-long trial of Taser which began in February 2003 across five forces in England and Wales: Lincolnshire, the Metropolitan Police, Northamptonshire, North Wales and Thames Valley.
This trial was on behalf of all police forces in the United Kingdom. Prior to the trial, Taser technology had been subject to "rigorous assessment" by the Police Scientific Development Branch (PSDB) and the Defence Scientific Advisory Council’s Sub Committee on the Medical Implications of Less Lethal Technologies.
The Taser is a less lethal option that works by delivering an electrical current that interferes with the body’s neuromuscular system, temporarily incapacitating the subject. It is laser-sighted and uses cartridges attached to the end of the barrel. The cartridges project a pair of barbs, which attach to the skin or clothing and deliver an electrical charge. During the trial period, there were approximately 60 incidents where Taser was deployed. In the vast majority of these, nearly 80 per cent, the incidents were resolved without the Taser actually being fired; officers needed to do no more than aim Taser and use the laser sight for the subjects to become compliant. No lives were lost and no serious injury occurred to the officer or the offender.
Taser has brought a number of benefits to how officers can deal with violent offenders in situations with potential for serious injury or harm to people. It allows the offender to be tackled from a distance, so reducing the need for officers to engage the subjects at close range. This means it can help resolve an incident before the risk of harm becomes heightened.
Immobilised subjects can be restrained and handcuffed quickly, further minimising risk or injury to officers or other persons in the vicinity.
In essence, the Taser is suited to incidents where an individual is violent and is difficult to approach and restrain. It may provide a good alternative to baton guns and incapacitant sprays in confined areas of action where they may be a risk of collateral injury to others.
The trial also demonstrated the limitations of Taser and this is important to ensure the police service seeks continuous evaluation and improvement of all its equipment.
I believe the trial has shown Taser to be a useful addition to the current range of equipment for those specially trained officers who are called upon to deal with the most dangerous situations. I do not believe it is an item of equipment that should be on general issue - it should only be deployed in accord with the principle of "absolute necessity", in line with our operational guidelines.
Consequent to the trial and the evaluation, ACPO has sought the views of David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, on Taser being available for deployment across all police forces in England and Wales where a firearm authority has been granted. The Home Secretary’s decision is awaited.
ACPOS has agreed to await the outcome of this consultation before making its own decision on the deployment of Taser in Scotland.
On a personal note, I believe there is a place for Taser in the police armoury which I base on the evidence that the deployment of Taser (in the trial) has invariably led to a positive result. There is no immediate alternative and the order: "set phasers to stun" remains far into the future.
Ian Gordon is the Deputy Chief Constable of Tayside and Scotland’s senior adviser on police firearms policy.
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